JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton both offer three quick thoughts as the Jaguars prepare to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2018 preseason finale at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Thursday
1.This team is ready. Really ready. Few – if any – Jaguars starters will play Thursday when they close the '18 preseason against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And while there may be seasons when such a Preseason Week 4 approach is debatable, this isn't such a season for the Jaguars. This team has outscored opponents 24-12, with first-team players in the game in the preseason. The first-team defense has held opponents to four field goals. The first-team offense produced 303 yards offense against the Falcons in Preseason Week 3 Saturday, and the offensive line/running game had its best performance of the preseason. The preseason hasn't been perfect. Wide receiver Marqise Lee's season-ending injury against Atlanta is a major blow, and quarterback Blake Bortles' three interceptions can't turn into a regular-season trend. But overall this is a team that looks how it's expected to look – like an ascending team capable of contending for the Super Bowl.
2.The offense is going to be diverse. One major takeaway from the victory over Atlanta Saturday: the Jaguars' two-back offensive look is going to be intriguing. But a minor takeaway may be getting overlooked – and that's the depth and diversity on this passing offense. That diversity could be the key in making up for Lee's absence. With Lee out of the game Saturday, Bortles spread the ball as effectively as he ever has during his NFL career. Twelve players other than Lee caught passes, and at least 10 figure to be active on game day. Running backs Corey Grant, Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon were as involved in the offense as receivers Donte Moncrief, Dede Westbrook, Rashad Greene Sr., Keelan Cole and DJ Chark Jr., who in turn were as involved as tight ends James O'Shaughnessy and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. It's conceivable none of those players could be 1,000-yard receivers this season. It's also possible that in any given game any of those players could be critical to the passing offense. There's no No. 1 receiver; that was true even before Lee's loss. But there are a bunch of players who can make plays in the passing game, and the diversity we saw against Atlanta could define this offense.
3.The preseason did nothing to lessen the expectations for the Jaguars' defense. That's significant because the unit entered training camp with expectations so high that any misstep or rough series could have sent observers into a panicky tizzy. But the Jaguars' defense absolutely met those expectations in the preseason – and more. Defensive end Calais Campbell this week said the goal of the defense during the preseason was to "intimidate people and send a message across the league." It's hard to know if the Jaguars intimidated the league with their defensive performance. What's not hard to know is that this should be one of the best defenses in the NFL this season. It has a chance to achieve greatness. It has a chance to be remembered. "The ultimate goal would be to have offensive coordinators looking at the defense like, 'I don't know where to attack … I don't know how,'" Campbell said. That's not only an ultimate goal, it's a lofty one. But it's one that's achievable for a defense poised for greatness.
1.The Jaguars don't need former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant. They let him go last spring when they released Allen Hurns. Bryant according to people close to the Cowboys is a passionate player who plays with great energy, loves the game and cares deeply about his team. But he isn't fast any longer, was never a great route runner and isn't on an NFL roster because he doesn't want to go from being a star making $16.5 million in Dallas to less than $6 million, which is what the Cowboys signed Hurns for in the spring. I tried to see how Bryant could be this team's Andre Rison, a veteran receiver who left a lasting impact on wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell in the 11 games he was here in 1996, but I don't see that this group needing that; after all, this group has McCardell as wide receivers coach to show players how to be a professional. Another injury could change my mind, but this group was tested in a playoff run last season and is ready to take a bigger step this season. I wouldn't sign Bryant or any veteran receiver unless another injury required it.
2.I love what I've seen from offensive coordinator Nate Hackett this summer, but I also loved his game plan in Pittsburgh in January. Hackett grew up with the game while his father, Paul, was a college and professional coach and coordinator. The younger Hackett also played quarterback at Cal-Davis and has coached in college and the NFL for the last 15 years. He stood by Bortles through the struggle in 2016 because he saw the chance to build an offense around a smart, tough, athletic quarterback who might not own the rocket arm of Brett Favre but who has all the "gunslinger" qualities that made Favre such a fun quarterback to watch for nearly 20 years. Hackett is playing to what Bortles does best when he brings Grant on the field with Fournette and runs play-action screen passes faking to each back and eventually using the same formation and handing the ball off. I liken it to the old Oakland Raiders offense of the 1970s when quarterback Ken Stabler used backs Marv Hubbard and Pete Banaszak to soften defenses and then throw over their heads and around them to tight end Dave Casper before taking shots down the field to wide receivers Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch – and leaning on a ferocious defense to boot. I loved watching those Raiders teams; if this team is as much fun to watch in the regular season as it has been at times in the preseason, Hackett will be a name to watch next January.
3.I just realized my "Quick Thoughts" weren't quick, so let me finish with a hint of brevity. This team is ridiculously talented on defense and has an offense that can win on several levels this year – and not just on the back of Fournette. Expectations are deservedly high. Watching this team in August has done nothing to dampen my view that it's the most talented roster in the NFL. I get all that can get in the way, go wrong and turn south in an NFL season, but this team has everything it needs to win the Super Bowl next February. Now let's get to the regular season and see if it does.